Amla (botanical name Phyllanthus emblica) is an elegant ornamental tree, which usually grows up to a height of 60 feet (18 meters). In some rare cases, the tree may even be 100 feet (30 meters) tall. The bark of amla tree is somewhat smooth and has a light greyish-brown hue. Similar to the bark of guava, amla also peels off its bark in thin flakes.
Although amla is a deciduous tree, which sheds its leaves and branches from time to time, the tree is rarely found completely bare. Hence, this tree is often described as an evergreen species. Amla trees bear tiny, oblong-shaped leaves that grow up to a length of anything between 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch (1.25 cm and 2.0 cm) in length and they are just 1/8 inch (3 mm) broad.
These miniature leaves are disposed distichously (arranged alternately in two vertical rows on opposite sides of an axils) on extremely thin branchlets, which may make one deduce that they are delicately pinnate foliage.
The greenish-yellow flowers of amla are also small and unremarkable. The flowers appear in dense clusters in the axils of the leaves at the lower rung leaves axil. Generally, the male flowers appear at the base of a growing branchlet, while the female blooms grow above the male flowers. Occasionally, some trees produce flowers having distinct male and female organs (dioecious).
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Amla fruits are almost bereft of any stem. The fruits have an oblate or round shape, with an indented base. They are smooth having anything between six to eight lines, which occasionally appear as faint ridges. These lines begin at the base of the fruit and continue to the apex making the fruits appear as lobed or divided into sections.
When they appear, the fruits have a pale green hue, but gradually their color changes to whitish or a pale, greenish-yellow. Although rare, some fruits may also become brick-red when they mature.
The fruits are firm and unyielding when touched. The skin of the fruit is flimsy, translucent and compatible with the fruit's extremely crispy, succulent flesh, which is the same color throughout (concolorous). A somewhat hexagonal stone, enclosing six tiny seeds, is firmly fixed in the fruit's center.
The Indian gooseberry or amla is indigenous to the south-eastern regions of Asia having tropical climatic conditions, especially in southern and central India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, southern China, Malaya and the Mascarene Islands. All over India, people generally grow this species in their home gardens. In Uttar Pradesh (a northern state in India), amla is cultivated commercially.
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These days, people in Singapore, southern Malaya and all over Malaysia have planted numerous amla trees. The amla tree is held in high esteem by people in India and, to some extent, in Malaya. The fruit of this tree is consumed raw as well as preserved in these countries. The Indian gooseberry also holds a very important position in the folk medicine of these countries.
Amla fruits are collected from wild as well as from the tress grown in the home gardens as well as orchards. They are used for personal consumption and also sold in the market. People in the southern regions of Thailand gather amla fruits from wild trees and sell them in the market.
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In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicine stream, amla is frequently used to treat a variety of health conditions. In addition to being loaded with vitamin C, this fruit also contains several other vitamins, antioxidants and essential minerals.
Frequently, Ayurvedic practitioners in India use amla to treat conditions like fevers, joint inflammations, infections of the urinary tract and also to regulate the glucose levels in the bloodstream. The high dietary fiber content of amla makes this fruit a valuable herbal remedy for curing constipation.
Antioxidants are vital for treating problems related to aging and they also help to put off a number of diseases like diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer. In addition to the previously declared health benefits offered by amla, this herb is also wonderful for alleviating stress. This herb facilitates the body to unwind, and quiet down. This is the main reason why several people also use amla to cure insomnia.
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It is also believed that amla helps to augment fertility, make the lungs stronger and also perk up the immune system, enhancing the disease fighting ability of people who use this herb. Occasionally, amla is also employed to treat sunburns as well as sunstrokes.
Amla is also regarded to be an astringent and exfoliating agent. Using this herb on a regular basis makes one's skin have a more youthful appearance. In addition, this herb is also useful for reducing sagging of the skin, because it works to tense up the skin. Often, this herb is also used to put off hair loss as well as to prevent hair from becoming grey - another sign of old age. In fact, regular use of amla helps to make the hair look healthy and shiny.
The fruit of the Indian gooseberry tree is also wonderful for the health of the bones, teeth and nails, because it helps the body to take up calcium from the ingested foods. In effect, this herb makes the bones, teeth and nails stronger. This herb is useful for promoting long life and, at the same time, it augments the functioning of the digestive system.
Amla is also useful in lessening coughs and alleviating fevers. This herb works in the form of a blood purifier. In addition, this herb is excellent for the health of the eyes, hair growth, make the body livelier and augment one's intellect. Amla is also beneficial for people with mental problems and suffering from memory effects.
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People enduring high levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream, suffering from stiffening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and pancreatitis (painful pancreas), aching joints, dysentery, diarrhea, stomach disorders, obesity and cancer will find this herb beneficial. It is also useful for organ restoration.
Amla is loaded with a potent antioxidant ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which is useful for reducing wrinkles, holding back pigmentation and also helps the skin to retain its normal moisture. In addition, consumption of amla fruit juice on a regular basis helps to cure elevated body temperature, gastritis, digestive disorders and also provide relief from the burning feeling of the body.
Traditional Indian medicine like Ayurveda and Unani uses both dried as well as fresh fruits of the Indian gooseberry plant. In fact, these medicine streams use all parts of the tree, including the leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark and root to prepare a variety of herbal formulations.
Amla is of immense value in the traditional medicine of various Asian countries. It is not only used in the form of an anti-scorbutic, but also employed for treating varied health conditions, particularly those related to the digestive tract. In order to use the fruit for treating digestive disorders, its juice is extracted and prepared into a sherbet.
Even licensed drug stores sell the dried out chips of amla flesh, which is often combined with honey and grape juice for adjusting the dosage to treat digestive disorders. The gooseberry is known to possess laxative as well as diuretic properties.
Triphala, an amla decoction prepared with Terminalia bellerica Roxb. and Terminalia chebula Retz. is prescribed for people suffering from biliousness, chronic dysentery, enlarged liver, hemorrhoids and several other health problems. The powder of the dried out amla is said to be a very useful expectorant, because it helps to stimulate the bronchial glands.
When fruits that are still on the trees are scored, they exude a juice, which is considered to be valuable eyewash and is excellent for treating inflamed eyes. An infusion prepared by steeping dried out amla in water throughout the night also works as excellent eyewash. An infusion prepared from amla seeds also serves as effective eyewash.
The juice extracted from the leaves of the Indian gooseberry tree is also consumed for treating dysentery, diarrhea, and indigestion, particularly after combining it with sour milk, buttermilk or fenugreek. The tree exudes a milky sap, which is applied topically to foul sores. In fact, the Indian gooseberry tree is believed to be useful antiseptic for cleaning wounds.
In addition, the herb is also considered to be an important analgesic for curing snakebites as well as scorpion stings. A decoction prepared with the leaves of this tree is also used in the form of a mouthwash as well as an ointment for tender eyes.
The flowers of the Indian gooseberry tree are also believed to be aperient (possessing laxative properties) and refrigerant (a medication that alleviates fevers), while the roots possess emetic properties. Hence, these are used for treating various disorders. Even the root bark of this tree possesses therapeutic properties. It is dried, powdered, blended with honey and applied topically to mouth inflammations.
The bark of the Indian gooseberry possesses potent astringent properties and is employed for treating diarrhea as well as a stomachic for elephants. Juice obtained from the fresh bark of the tree is blended with honey and turmeric and prescribed for people suffering from gonorrhea.
It is evident that most of the uses of amla are founded on the astringent effect of the tannins contained by it. While the short-term consequences of tannins seem to be beneficial, using them on a regular basis may prove to be extremely damaging, as tannin is not only anti-nutrient, but it also promotes development of cancer.
A lotion prepared from the scorched amla seeds and the oil extracted from them is applied to the skin to treat a number of problems. In addition, the seeds of Indian gooseberry are also effective for curing bronchitis, asthma, fevers and diabetes. Chemical analysis of the amla seeds has revealed that they enclose lipolytic and proteolytic enzymes and phosphatides, in addition to a very little quantity of essential oil.
People in rural India assert that amla is an extremely acidic fruit. Drinking a glass of water after consuming the fruit fresh and raw will leave a sweet as well as refreshing sensation in the mouth. In fact, woodcutters in several south-eastern regions of Asia consume this fruit raw with a view to put off thirst. It has been found that consumption of the fresh fruit raw encourages saliva output.
Therefore, even when people clear a forest, they do not fell the amla tree, because it is of immense value to them. In Thailand, drivers stop busses on the highways to allow thirst passengers to rush to the trees, collect the fruits and consume them raw.
The Hindus regard the Indian gooseberry tree to be sacred and the Hindu religion suggests that one should consume the ripe amla fruits for a period of 40 days following a fast with a view to reinstate his/ her health and vitality. In many Indian homes, it is a general practice to cook the whole amla fruits along with sugar and saffron and give one or two of them to a child in the morning every day. This therapeutic preparation is locally known as a "murabba."
Freshly obtained amla fruits are also baked in tart and incorporated into other food items in the form of a seasoning item during cooking. In addition, the juice of the fresh amla fruit is added to vinegar to augment its flavour. The whole ripe as well as semi-ripe fruits of the Indian gooseberry trees are also used to prepare candies, besides using them to prepare jams, relishes, pickles and other preserves.
The fruits are also mixed with different other fruits to prepare chutney. In Indonesia, people add the amla to several dishes with a view to impart its acidity to those preparations. Sometimes, amla fruits are also used in the form of tamarind substitute.
Soaking the amla fruits in a saline solution helps to reduce the bitterness or acidity of the fruit. You may also add tamarind, unripe mango or any citrus fruits to amla to overcome its bitterness. If you wish to preserve amla, you need to brine the whole fruit first, wash and prick it and subsequently blanch the fruits in an aqueous solution of alum. Then coat the fruit with sugar till it forms syrup and boil it.
Finally the syrupy fruits are packed in cans made from enamel or crystallized in the form of a confection.
People in India, use the dried out, sliced flesh of amla to prepare a sauce. To prepare this sauce, you need to cook the chips in water, mash them along with caraway seeds using a mortar and season them further using salt and yogurt. In India, many people consume this preparation after breaking a fast.
It is interesting to note that during World War II, the vitamin C rations of the Indian military personnel included powders of the dry emblic fruit, as well as tablets and candies made from the fruit of amla.
It is common in India to consume raw amla steeped in saline water and turmeric, as this makes the bitter fruit more appetizing.
Precisely speaking, the Indian gooseberry is native to the sub-tropical regions, rather than places having tropical climatic conditions. In India, amla trees thrive in places ranging from the sea-level to altitudes of about 5,000 feet (1,800 meters). These trees cannot endure very high temperature. The mature trees in India can tolerate temperatures up to 46°C (115°F) during the summer months, while it is essential to provide shade to the younger plants.
It appears that the Indian gooseberry (also referred to as the emblic plant) grows well in humid conditions too. This species is distinguished for its ability to succeed even in places that are extremely arid and in very poor soils. However, the trees need a deep soil, which may range from light to heavy, sandy loam to clay, somewhat acidic to slightly alkaline. The trees suffer from nutritional deficiencies when the pH level is very high (for instance, 8.0).
Generally, the Indian gooseberry is propagated by means of its seeds collected from overripe fruits. These fruits are dried out in the sun to make it easy to take away the stone. Alternatively, the ripened fruits are sliced into half through the stone to extract the seeds.
After being extracted, the seeds undergo a float test and only the seeds that sink completely in water will germinate. Four months from the day the seeds are sown, the stem of the seedlings usually measure 1/3 inch (8 mm) in diameter. In India, the seedlings can be grafted or budded between June and September as well as during February-March.
Seedlings that are about 1.5 years old can be used in the form of rootstocks for chip-budding. This process is quite simple and the success rate is about 60 percent to 80 percent provided it is undertaken in September-October or February-March.
Occasionally, cultivators in India grow amla trees by inarching. However, the success rate of this process is usually very low (just about 25 percent to 30 percent) after the young plants are separated from the stock. More plants may die after they are planted in their permanent positions in the field.
The amla trees that produce low quality fruits cut back in heights of about four feet (1.2 meters) and coal tar is applied to the surface where they are cut for promoting budding of new shoots. For best results, the amla trees should be cut back in height any time between June and September.
Scientists have undertaken primary research with the Indian gooseberry and in vitro studies have shown that is possesses antimicrobial and antiviral attributes. In vitro studies have also provided with initial evidence that extracts of this fruit not only generate programmed cell death (apoptosis), but also alter gene expression in osteoclasts involved in osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, amla or the Indian gooseberry may also have the potential to combat specific cancer forms.
Trial preparations using the leaves, fruits and bark of amla tree have demonstrated that they may be effective against a number of in vitro disease models, including inflammation, diabetes, renal disorders related to old age and even cancer.
A pilot study undertaken on humans has shown that treating normal as well as hypercholesterolemic men with amla helped to reduce the level of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Findings of a recent study undertaken on alloxan-induced rats with diabetes showed that when they were administered an aqueous solution of amla extract, their blood glucose as well as triglyceridemic levels decreased considerably.
In addition, the use of this diluted amla extract also demonstrated an improvement in the functioning of the liver. It was found that the liver function normalized due to the activities of a liver-specific enzyme known as alanine transaminase.
Chemical analysis of amla fruits or the Indian gooseberry has revealed that they contain a high concentration of ellagitannins like emblicanin A (37 percent), emblicanin B (33 percent), punigluconin (12 percent) and pedunculagin (14 percent), which contribute to the fruits' antioxidant strength. In addition, amla fruits also enclose phyllanemblinin, phyllanemblinin A, punicafolin and various polyphenols, such as flavonoids, gallic acid, ellagic acid, and kaempferol.
Drinking 20 ml of amla juice on a regular basis along with meals serves as a wonderful tonic for the liver. Similarly, consuming 20 ml of amla juice blended with honey early in the morning every day is good for the health of the eyes and also improves vision.
On the other hand, consumption of half to one teaspoon of powder of the dried food twice every day helps to purify the blood. It also helps to cure hyperacidity, ulcers and wounds.
Amla fruits, also known as the Indian gooseberry, is vulnerable to day-length. Trees in northern India blossom during the period between March and May, while those grown in the southern part of the country like Chennai (earlier known as Madras) flower twice - once during June-July and again in February.
The blossoms in February produce a very small crop. Amla trees grown in Florida produce flowers in summer, while the main crop is ready for harvesting between winter and the beginning of spring. However, some fruits that develop from late flowering may be found on the trees in summer as well as in fall.
People in India collect mature amla fruits by shaking the branches when they are just ready to drop on the ground. In addition, they also collect the fruits that have already dropped on the ground and sell them in the market. The fruits remain in good condition for a longer period, provided they are handled properly.
The yield of amla fruits differ a lot, because numerous fruits drop on the ground when they are still young, especially during their development period. In addition, the yield of plants grown from seeds as well as different cultivars differs greatly.